The Cossack squat allows lifters to move their bodies in a range of motion that isn’t normally trained.
As a trainer, I must be specific with my clients when describing a new exercise, so let’s do that now.
So, what is the Cossack squat? The Cossack squat is a single-leg squat variation requiring high balance, mobility, and coordination. To start the Cossack squat, lifters step one leg to the side, and as they descend into a deep squat position, the opposite leg is kept out straight with the toes pointing in the air.
While you’ll see Cossack squats mostly being done using body weight only, don’t underestimate its difficulty. The Cossack squat is a deceptively challenging exercise to execute properly, even when no weight is used.
In this article, I’ll cover, ‘what is a Cossack squat?’ and the muscles worked during Cossack squats. I’ll also explain the purpose of doing the Cossack squat, the benefits, and how to do it properly.
Finally, you’ll learn who should incorporate this exercise into their routine. Let’s get started!
Table of Contents
What Is The Cossack Squat?
So, what are Cossack squats? Unlike a traditional squat, where the barbell is on your back, the Cossack squat is often done using body weight only.
However, more advanced lifters may perform a weighted Cossack squat by holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of their body, much like how you would hold a weight during a Goblet Squat.
Also, while the load in the traditional squat should be equally placed between the two legs, the Cossack squat is a single leg variation, which works the right and left sides independently.
Unlike other single-leg variations, though, like a lunge or split squat where the legs are either moving forward or backward, the Cossack squat requires lifters to move their legs laterally (sideways) from the center of their body.
Furthermore, for the Cossack squat to be the most effective, the range of motion is far greater than typically seen in other single-leg variations, including lateral lunges. In particular, the hips and knees travel through a greater joint angle.
For all these reasons, the Cossack exercise is considered an advanced squat variation that requires the following:
• A high amount of ankle, hip, knee mobility
• A high amount of flexibility in the inner thigh and hamstrings
• Strong stabilizer muscle groups to maintain balance
• Greater levels of body awareness and coordination
While the Cossack squat isn’t the first exercise you should learn in the gym, it’s an excellent progression from the traditional lunge or squat.
Check out my article on the Best Cossack Squat Alternatives.
Cossack Squat: Muscles Worked
Let’s now cover the question, ‘What do Cossack squats work?' The muscles used in the bodyweight, kettlebell, or dumbbell Cossack squat variations are the:
• Adductor Magnus (Inner Thigh)
• Obliques (side abs)
The Cossack squats exercise uses much of the same musculature that you would see in the squat.
However, certain muscles are more activated in the Cossack squat compared with the traditional squat: the glute medius, quadriceps, and obliques.
The Cossack squat uses greater amounts of glute medius.
3 different muscles make up the glutes. The glute medius is the upper-side part of the glute.
Its main job is to externally rotate the hip and move the leg laterally (sideways).
Because the legs are dynamically moving out to the side of each rep during the Cossack squat, the glute medius works much harder to facilitate this movement pattern than the squat, where the legs don’t move laterally.
The quads will be activated to a greater extent as you bend your knees in the Cossack squat.
This is because as you drop your hips below parallel, your knees will need to push forward to gain this extra range of motion. The further your knees travel forward, the greater your quads need to work to extend the knees out of the bottom position. As you develop more mobility in your hips, ankles, and knees, and you’re able to squat ass-to-grass, you will feel your quads working a lot harder. If you have trouble with deep squatting, check out my guide on how to squat deeper.
The obliques will be activated more during the Cossack squat in order to prevent your body from twisting as you’re squatting down.
One of the things you want to avoid in the Cossack squat is to twist your body as you descend into the bottom position.
As a result, the obliques will need to remain active throughout the entire range of motion in order to counteract any twisting that may occur.
Check out my article on the Cossack Squat vs Lateral Lungs: Pros, Cons, Differences
6 Benefits of The Cossack Squat
Let’s now discuss the main reasons you would perform the Cossack squat with or without additional weight.
While there are significant benefits to the Cossack squat, it’s considered an advanced variation that requires mastery of the traditional squat and lunge before attempting.
The benefits of a Cossack squat are:
• It can be used as a warm-up for other squat variations
• It will build strength and hypertrophy in the lower body
• It is a unilateral exercise
• It can build greater levels of motor control
• It can improve range of motion
• It can add variation to your exercise program
1. It Can Be Used As A Warm-Up For Other Squat Variations
Many lifters choose to use the Cossack squat as a warm-up for the squat. This is particularly common with powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters.
This is because the Cossack squat accomplishes two goals:
(1) It helps dynamically stretch the muscles of the lower body
As you descend into the Cossack squat, you’ll feel a stretch in your calves, hamstrings, and inner thigh muscles. If these muscles are tight, you will have a hard time squatting to depth in the traditional back squat.
(2) It activates smaller muscle groups that have a role in stabilizing the bigger prime movers.
Equally important is activating stabilizing muscle groups like the glute medius before squatting. The glute medius keeps the knees tracking properly over the toes. If the glute medius isn’t firing properly, then you might find your knees caving inward while squatting.
2. It will Build Strength & Hypertrophy In The Lower Body
If you have a particular goal of building strength and muscle mass in the lower body, then the Cossack squat may be appropriate.
Due to the side-to-side movement required in Cossack squat variations, I would consider the Cossack squat if I wanted to build strength and muscle mass in the glute medius, the upper side of the glute. As with any variation of the squat, your squat depth makes a significant difference in how effective the Cossack squat is for building muscle.
You may want to train the Cossack squat if you have a glute deficiency and you need to bring up the ability for your glute medius to activate properly or because you want to build more mass around the top/side of your glutes.
3. It Is a Unilateral Exercise
The Cossack squat is a unilateral exercise that effectively works out any muscular imbalances between the right and left leg.
If you’ve identified that one leg is stronger, you’ll want to address this deficiency as soon as possible.
The benefits of unilateral exercises, like all Cossack squat variations, include becoming more resistant to injury, improving balance, and increasing your overall technique and movement pattern.
As well, unilateral exercises have been shown to increase core activation, and in the case of the Cossack squat, the obliques are activated to a greater extent.
Related Article: Do Squats Strengthen The Core? (Research From 5 Studies)
4. It Can Build Greater Levels of Motor Control
The Cossack squat can teach you how to move your body more efficiently.
The term ‘motor control’ refers to the process of initiating and directing your body in a purposeful manner.
In other exercises, like the squat, you can get away with many movement deficiencies and still accomplish the exercise because you’re lifting on a single frontal plane (two feet side-by-side), and it’s using greater total body musculature.
However, in the Cossack squat, there is less room for technical error, even if you’re achieving full depth, because the legs are on uneven planes, and you’re only working one leg at a time.
As such, you need to be more precise with your movement actions, and any deviation in your technique will make the movement a lot harder, or even impossible, to complete.
5. It Can Improve Range of Motion
The Cossack squat can be used as a stretching exercise to increase the range of motion of your hips, knees, and ankles.
Rather than performing the Cossack squat for 3 sets of 10 reps, for example, you can choose to perform the Cossack squat for a single rep and simply hold the bottom position for an extended amount of time (30-60 seconds).
As you ‘hang out’ in the bottom position of the Cossack squat with your squatting leg bent to full flexion at the knee joint, you’ll notice your hips begin to sink even further, and your calves and inner thigh will loosen. This is your body stretching itself into the deeper end ranges of the movement.
If you are going to use the Cossack squat as a stretching exercise, I would perform it at the end of your workout.
6. It Can Add Variation To Your Exercise Program
The Cossack squat can provide a new stimulus for the body to adapt and enables you to maintain constant tension in the lower body muscles, especially if you’re achieving full depth with every rep.
This is important if you’ve found that you’ve reached a plateau in building strength in one particular exercise. Check out my guide on breaking through a squat plateau.
If you train the same exercises week-in and week-out for several weeks, then at some point, you will begin to stall on your progressions. In other words, you won’t be able to add more weight or reps to the movement.
At this point, switching your exercises can create a new set of progressions for you to work through. Notwithstanding, switching your exercises from time-to-time makes training more enjoyable as it provides new challenges.
Check out other unilateral exercises: Best Pistol Squat Alternatives
How To Do The Cossack Squat
Now that you know why people do the Cossack squat, let’s discuss the proper technique and how to do Cossack squats properly.
As I’ve mentioned previously, you should already have a solid understanding of how to squat and lunge before attempting the Cossack squat.
Pro Tip: To start, I advise using bodyweight only before loading this movement with a dumbbell or kettlebell. Once you can comfortably perform 3 sets of 15 reps per leg with bodyweight, then you can begin adding weight for Cossack squat progression.
As well, this is an exercise that may not feel natural at first. You may need several weeks of practice to get used to the movement pattern before significantly increasing the load. When you first try a Cossack squat, you might find that your hip mobility is limiting and prevents you from using proper form.
As a result, you might struggle to keep your torso upright and end up leaning forward quite a lot, which is one of the most common Cossack squat mistakes I see people doing.
Luckily, regularly practicing hip mobility exercises and Cossack squat variations will enable you to squat deeper, making building muscle in your lower body easier.
Here are the key steps for performing the Cossack squat with good form.
Step 1: Take a Wide Stance & Flare Your Toes
Take a wide squat stance with your feet.
Your feet should be placed at least 2X the distance of your shoulders. With this wide stance, you’ll want to make sure you’re wearing grippy squat shoes so your feet don’t slip.
You’ll also want to flare your toes slightly outward (approximately 15-30 degrees).
Step 2: Shift Your Weight To One Side
Start the movement by shifting your weight over to one foot and bend your hips and knees downward.
At the same time, draw the opposite leg's toes up to the ceiling.
The opposite leg should stay straight, and the heel of this leg can move more freely to increase how comfortable it feels.
The leg that’s bending should have the knees travel forward over the toes.
Step 3: Stay Upright & Sit Your Hips Down
As you’re squatting down, you’ll want to use the squat cue of ‘staying tall’ to maintain an upright torso position.
You’ll be able to accomplish this more effectively if you think about sitting your hips down vs pushing them back. The further your hips travel back, the more forward torso lean you will experience.
Step 4: Go As Far Down As Your Mobility/Flexibility Allows
You’ll want to go as deep as you can while maintaining proper technique.
At no point should you feel pain in your hips, knees, or ankles. If you do, you might have passed your natural mobility limits.
As you squat down, you’ll want to explore how the tension feels in your muscles in the deeper end ranges. You might find that you can squat down deeper if you intentionally maintain your balance, core strength, and stability. In other words, don’t rush the tempo on the way down.
You might also notice that if you adjust your squat stance (either narrower or wider), you can get deeper. This is the time to practice different squat stances to find what will ultimately work for you.
Step 5: Push Through The Floor & Stand Up
Once the end range is achieved, drive into the foot on the bent leg and stand back to the starting position.
Without adjusting your feet, you’ll want to begin squatting into the opposite leg to train both sides.
Cossack Squat Progressions
If you are a complete beginner to the Cossack squat, you should work through the following progressions before doing the full Cossack squat.
Once you feel comfortable doing one progression, move to the next level. You can also consider Cossack squat alternatives to shake up your workouts.
The four cossack squat progression options are:
• Stretch your hips and hamstrings
• Perform while holding onto something for balance
• Perform bodyweight reps
• Perform weighted reps
Progression #1: Stretch Your Hips & Hamstrings
In order to set yourself up for success when doing the Cossack squat, you should have adequate flexibility in your hips and hamstrings before starting.
My two favorite stretches for progressing into the Cossack square are the: (1) banded hamstring stretch and (2) frog stretch.
Banded Hamstring Stretch
You should be able to bring your leg straight up without bending your knee so that it’s at a 90-degree angle to the floor.
You should be able to bring your hips below the top of your knee in this stretch.
Progression #2: Perform Holding Onto Something For Balance
Once you’ve established a baseline level of flexibility, you are now ready to try the “assisted Cossack squat.”
The assisted Cossack squat is performed just like a regular Cossack squat, but you’re holding onto a wall or object throughout the movement.
You can use the wall or object to assist with balance if you find it hard to stabilize your body position as you squat down.
In addition, some people might not have the required strength at the bottom end range of motion to stand up, so using a wall or object can also assist with any lack of strength.
Progression #3: Perform Bodyweight Reps
Once you feel stronger and more stable with the movement pattern, you can try bodyweight reps.
When doing bodyweight reps, you will remove the wall or object in front of you and aim to go through the full range of motion unassisted.
If you can perform around 15 bodyweight reps on each leg without breaking form, then you’re ready to progress to the final level.
Progression #4: Progress to Weighted Reps
The final level is performing the Cossack squat while holding a weight.
To add load to this movement, you will typically perform a dumbbell or kettlebell Cossack squat by holding a single dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your chest throughout the exercise. This is called a “goblet Cossack squat.”
You can perform the Cossack squat with a barbell on your back for an even more advanced weighted progression. This should only be reserved for advanced lifters who require additional loading beyond a dumbbell or kettlebell.
Should You Do The Cossack Squat?
You should perform a Cossack's workout if you’re looking for a single leg exercise variation that targets the glute medius (upper/side part of glute) and quad muscles.
If you’re a beginner, you should master the basic squatting and lunging movement patterns before doing the Cossack squat. When you start the Cossack squat, work through the progressions outlined above.
Here are some other considerations that you should make when deciding if you should do the Cossack squat or not:
Doing The Cossack Squat As a Warm-Up Exercise
Protocol: Perform 2 sets of 10-15 reps with your bodyweight prior to squatting.
If you are looking for an activation exercise to fire up the glute medius before back squatting, then the Cossack squat is a good choice. You’ll want to activate the glute medius before squatting because it will help to stabilize the knee under load.
Doing The Cossack squat To Build Single Leg Strength
Protocol: Perform 3-4 sets of 8 to 12 reps progressing the load over several weeks of training.
If you start noticing an imbalance between your right and left leg, you’ll want to implement some form of single-leg exercises into your program. This could include step-ups, the lateral lunge, or Cossack squats.
Doing The Cossack Squat To Increase Flexibility
Protocol: Perform 1-2 sets of 30-60-second static holds where you’re just sitting in the bottom position of the squat. Make sure to perform static stretching following your workout (not before).
If you want to increase the flexibility of your inner thigh, hamstring, and hip muscles, then you can perform a static stretch using the Cossack squat.
To get a better stretch, you should choose to perform an ‘assisted Cossack squat,’ where you’re holding onto a wall or object in front of you so that your balance isn’t impacted while stretching.
Common Mistakes in the Cossack Squat
Here are some common mistakes to avoid when performing the Cossack squat to ensure you get the most out of the exercise and avoid injuries:
- Leaning Too Far Forward
- Performing The Exercise Too Quickly
- Lifting the Heels Off The Floor
Leaning Too Far Forward
During the Cossack squat, you should maintain an upright torso as much as possible. However, I’ve seen many people leaning way too far forward during this exercise, which relieves tension from the glutes and reduces the effectiveness of the exercise.
Try to keep your weight distributed evenly between your anterior and posterior chains and keep your core engaged throughout to maintain proper posture.
Performing The Exercise Too Quickly
It’s tempting to speed through a set of Cossack squats and use momentum to get through the exercise. Instead of rushing through the reps, keep the movement slow and controlled to maximize your progress.
Lifting the Heels Off The Floor
If you have limited ankle flexibility, you might find that your heels rise off the floor as you descend into a lateral lunge. Aim to lower your body down as much as possible without lifting the heel of the squatting leg off the ground.
I’d recommend adding some mobility training to your routine to improve your ankle mobility if you struggle to perform the Cossack squat without lifting your heels off the floor.
How to Get a Deeper Cossack Squat
You can improve your Cossack squat by working on your lower body mobility. For most people, poor ankle, knee, and hip mobility are limiting factors in achieving a deep Cossack squat.
I recommend adding a couple of 30 minute mobility sessions into your weekly training routine to improve your overall joint mobility. You’ll find that your performance improves in a range of other lower body exercises when your ankle, knee, and hip mobility improves.
Improving your lower body and core strength will also improve your Cossack squat depth. You’ll improve your strength by lifting heavy and training hard, focusing on compound exercises like squats and deadlifts for maximum gains.
Who Should Perform the Cossack Squat?
The Cossack squat is a great exercise for many lifters and athletes. It’s a well-rounded movement that trains in the frontal plane, incorporating strength, mobility, and whole-body coordination.
The Cossack squat is helpful for strength athletes because it enhances lower-body muscular strength and core strength. It also promotes better movement patterns, total body coordination and stability.
The Cossack squat will improve exercise performance in other resistance training movements. Better exercise performance and overall strength will also reduce the risk of injuries during strength work.
The Cossack squat also benefits sports athletes, improving performance and reducing injury risk of strength training athletes. It promotes balance, coordination, stability, neuromuscular control, and strength, all of which are crucial for a great sportsperson.
The Cossack squat isn’t just beneficial for serious athletes. Everyday lifters can enjoy this exercise to improve their strength and reduce the risk of injuries.
With improved workout performance and fewer injuries, everyday lifters can expand their training skillsets and improve strength in both the squatting and opposite legs.
Cossack Squat Programming
The Cossack squat is best performed as an accessory exercise to your main lifts. It’s a great unilateral movement to add to your training program for maximize mobility, stability, and muscular balance.
To program Cossack squat variations into your workouts, I recommend using the following guidelines:
- Warm-up: Always warm-up before performing the Cossack squat, even if you’re only doing the bodyweight variation and are not adding any extra weight. Doing so reduces the risk of injuries.
- Do 12-15 reps for full-body workouts: If you’re using the Cossack squat as part of a full-body conditioning workout, perform it in sets of 12-15 reps as part of your total circuit.
- Do 8-10 reps for strength workouts: For strength-focused training, I recommend performing the Cossack squat in sets of 8-10 reps on each leg, holding a dumbbell or kettlebell for extra resistance.
- Do 3-4 sets of 10 reps with a slow tempo for mobility: To develop your hip, knee, and ankle mobility, you can perform the Cossack squats with a slightly slower tempo and 3-4 sets of 10 reps on each leg.
- Place towards the end of your workout: If you’re performing the Cossack squat exercise as part of a general lower body workout, I’d recommend placing it towards the end of the workout to fatigue the muscles and maintain great hip mobility. Perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps on each leg, using bodyweight or holding additional weight.
Cossack Squat Alternatives
If the Cossack squat doesn’t take your fancy, you can try the following alternatives to improve lower body strength, mobility, and neuromuscular control:
- Alternating lunges – a great unilateral exercise that targets all of the lower body muscles and core.
- Split squats – another great unilateral movement that targets the quads and glutes nicely, while also challenging your balance.
- Lateral lunges – one of the most similar exercises to the Cossack squat and a great movement for improving lateral strength and stability.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some frequently asked questions that I get around the Cossack squat:
What Are Cossack Squats Good For?
Cossack squats are good for building single-leg strength. More specifically, building the strength of your glute medius (upper/side part of glute) and quadricep muscles. Cossack squats can also be used to increase your mobility/flexibility and balance.
How Can I Improve My Cossack Squat?
You can improve the Cossack squat by increasing your hip, knee, and ankle mobility. In addition, you should try holding onto a wall or object in front of you while performing the Cossack squat in order to feel more comfortable going deeper into the range of motion.
What Muscles Do Cossack Squat Work?
The Cossack squat works the glute medius (upper/side part of glute), quadriceps, adductor magnus (inner thigh), hamstrings, calves, and obliques (side part of abs).
What Are The Differences Between a Cossack Squat and Side Lunge?
A Cossack squat starts with a wide stance (2X the distance of your shoulders), and your feet don’t move while bending your leg and moving your body sideways. A side lunge starts with your feet together and requires you to sidestep laterally to bend and lower your body. In the side lunge, you must also step your feet together in between reps, which is not required in the Cossack squat.
Are Cossack Squats Effective For Building Muscle?
Cossack squats aren’t the best exercise for building muscle, but they have their place within a well-rounded training program. They’re best at improving mobility, stability, and neuromuscular control, all of which can contribute to better muscle-building abilities.
I’m Really Inflexible. Can I Still Do Cossack Squats?
You can still perform Cossack squats even if you’re inflexible. You might need to modify the exercise to accommodate your current mobility level, but the more you practice, the more flexible you will become and the deeper you’ll be able to squat.
The Cossack squat is a dynamic, advanced squat variation that uniquely targets the lower body, requiring strength and enhanced flexibility and mobility.
Unlike the traditional back squat, which distributes the load between both legs, the Cossack squat is a single-leg exercise where the emphasis shifts laterally, challenging the legs in a completely distinct manner. It works the quads, glutes, hamstrings, inner thighs, side abs, and calves extensively.
For those seeking to target the glute medius and quad muscles specifically, the Cossack squat is recommended for your workout regimen. While it does share common muscles with the traditional squat, the Cossack squat notably activates the glute medius, quadriceps, and obliques more prominently.
It's vital, however, to avoid common mistakes like leaning too forward or lifting the heels off the floor.
Remember to always warm up before engaging in the Cossack squat and adjust your reps and sets based on your workout goal, be it full-body conditioning, strength training, or mobility.
If incorporated mindfully into your routine, the Cossack squat can be a game-changer, adding valuable variation and targeting muscles often overlooked in standard squats.
So, next time you're in the gym, consider embracing the lateral shift of the Cossack squat and explore the benefits it brings to your lower body workout.
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